AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) CEO Randall Stephenson says he does not believe there is any reason for Time Warner Inc. (NYSE: TWX) to sell CNN as part of a deal for his company to buy the huge entertainment company. The CNN speculation is one in a long line of guesses about what the telecom giant may have to do to get the federal government to approve the buyout.
If, by any chance, the Trump administration wants to show its disdain for larger mergers that it believes are not in the public’s best interests by killing the deal, Time Warner shares probably will reset back to the $60 level, where they traded almost a year ago. Shares currently change hands at $96.
The $84 billion buyout is based on AT&T management’s theory that it already owns the means to distribute content over wireless, cable, satellite and fiber infrastructure. Why not own a large portion of the content as well? AT&T argues that because its current business does not compete with Time Warner’s, the deal is not anticompetitive.
On the other side of the argument, if it owns what is distributed as well as the means of distribution, this might affect the chance of Time Warner competition to get fair carrier deals. There are strong arguments on each side, none of which may be the key to a Trump administration approval, particularly if it takes the view that most big mergers hurt consumers, period. It is a strange argument, but one that could prevail nonetheless.
Time Warner’s challenge, if it is left to stand alone, is that all large media companies have tremendous costs to create content and increased difficulties to pick means of distribution over which they have a substantial control over pricing. Time Warner is threatened by the cord-cutting trend, which affects its revenue for channels like CNN and HBO. These now stream to portable devices as well as over more traditional cable systems. The Warner Bros. film unit has to contend with the same proliferation of distribution outlets. Not so many years ago, movie theaters, DVDs and channels like HBO were the sole conduits. Broadband and new distribution means like Netflix have radically changed that, as well as the profit-and-loss business models of the industry.
If the AT&T deal fails, Time Warner, already under siege by new ways its content is delivered, can expect to answer questions from shareholders as its stock price resets, probably down by a third.